It’s been a weird, up-and-down season for the Atlanta Falcons. With a new coaching staff and front office, expectations were all over the map. For most of us, what has transpired thus far in 2021 has largely followed our initial predictions: Atlanta is right around .500 at 6-7, with stretches of horrid play along with some scrappy wins. Despite a talent-poor roster and a rookie head coach, the Falcons are right in the mix for the final two Wild Card spots in the NFC.
Much of that has to do with the state of the conference as a whole: there are five teams tied for the 7th seed at 6-7. Two 5-8 teams are also on the outside looking in, with a small but non-zero chance of making it. Even the 6th seed is largely up for grabs—it’s held by the 7-6 49ers, who are just one game up on the rest of the pack. The only team mathematically eliminated from the playoffs at this point is Detroit at 1-11-1.
Looking at FiveThirtyEight’s predictions—which are cool, by the way, and worth a look—the Falcons currently have a legitimate-but-unlikely 12% chance to make the playoffs heading in to Week 15. That’s the lowest chance of any of the 6-7 teams vying for the 7th seed: the Eagles are the favorite at 37%, followed by the Vikings (29%), WFT (27%), and Saints (19%). It’s easy to see why Philadelphia and Washington are favored over Atlanta: both have the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Falcons from victories early in the season. With New Orleans, it probably stems from the fact that the Saints get to play Atlanta again at the end of the year.
It may sound strange based on how this season has played out, but the Falcons very much still control their own destiny at 6-7. If the team were to win their final four games—a tall task with road games against 7-6 San Francisco and 7-6 Buffalo—Atlanta would have a greater than 99% chance of making the playoffs at 10-7. While it’s certainly not impossible for the Falcons to get hot and accomplish such a feat, I’d label it in the “very unlikely” category at this time.
The next-best way for the Falcons to make the playoffs is to go 3-1 over their final four. While difficult, it’s certainly more realistic than 4-0. It’s not a sure thing that they’ll make it, however: depending on which games are wins and losses, the Falcons chances swing anywhere from 26%-73%. One game on the schedule stands out above the rest, and that’s Week 15’s matchup with the 49ers. If Atlanta wants to have a good chance at making the playoffs at 9-8, they must get the head-to-head win over San Francisco.
The head-to-head tiebreaker coupled with pulling even in record with the 49ers is absolutely massive for Atlanta’s playoff hopes. A win in San Francisco nearly quadruples the Falcons chances at the postseason, and it would immediately put the team in competition for both the 6th and 7th seed. If Atlanta falls to the 49ers, it allows San Francisco to pad their lead for the 6th seed and tilts the tiebreaker in their favor.
Because of Atlanta’s performance against the Eagles and WFT earlier in the season, they’re in a very difficult spot. The team already loses tiebreakers to two of their potential Wild Card seed opponents—and the lone tiebreaker they have could be in jeopardy in Week 18 against the Saints. Getting a tiebreaker over the favorite for the 6th seed gives Atlanta a clear path to the postseason, while losing it makes things incredibly murky.
A further way to illustrate the importance of this game is to look at Atlanta’s playoff odds at various configurations of a 3-1 finish (9-8 overall record). With a loss to the 49ers, the Falcons top out at a 26% chance to make the playoffs. No other game comes close, with losses to Buffalo (73%) and Detroit (69%) barely moving the needle at all. As you might expect, the next most important (both in terms of odds and our hearts) is the Saints game to close the season—an Atlanta loss there would drop their odds to exactly 50%.
For all intents and purposes, this is the Game of the Year for the Falcons. The 49ers are one of the better teams they’ve faced all season, and Atlanta has not fared well against the more talented rosters in the NFL. San Francisco is currently 13th in scoring offense and 20th in scoring defense, but they’ve been playing their best football in recent weeks. One potential saving grace could be the 49ers poor play at home: they’re 2-4 this season and were 1-7 there in 2020. The Falcons have been road warriors this year with a 5-2 record.
It’s clear Atlanta will have to pull off a big upset this week to have a good chance at seeing the postseason. Their improved play, particularly as a competent rushing offense, must continue. But it’s already a minor miracle that the team is 6-7 considering the state of the roster—maybe this team will benefit from a little good luck this year.
Even if the Falcons falter on Sunday, I really want to see them fight for it. For all intents and purposes, Arthur Smith should treat this like a playoff game. Win and you have a chance to completely change the narrative surrounding the 2021 season. Lose, and we’ll be right back to talking about this as a rebuilding year and moving on to more draft coverage. This is a high-stakes game, and I want to see how the team (and coaching staff) respond with a chance at the postseason on the line.